Friday, March 22, 2024

Final Thoughts on the Wildcats

In 1994, Denny Crum and the Louisville Cardinals finished with a record of 28-6 overall and 10-2 in the Metro Conference.  The finished the year at Number 10 in the AP Poll.  They were a number 3 seed in the NCAA's.  They beat Boise State 67 to 58, and then beat Minnesota 60-55, before losing 82-70 to Arizona in the Sweet 16.  There was no shame here -- Arizona was really good, and they went to the Final Four.  At the time, you had to feel like Louisville's program was still in a very strong position.  After all, they had Denny Crum, and he was one of the greatest coaches of all time.  In 1994, Crum was only 57 years old, and you had to think he'd be good for another 10 years.

That was the last season in which Crum ever won a regular season conference title.

Oh, he still had moments from time to time.  He got back to the Sweet 16 in 1996, and got all the way to the Elite Eight in 1997, with a Number 6 seed that upset New Mexico along the way.  Of course, in the Elite Eight he got blasted by North Carolina by 23, because his teams could no longer compete at that level.  But getting to the Elite Eight was still impressive.

He coached four more years at U of L after the 1997 season.  Here's what they looked like:

1998:  12-20 (5-11 in the American Conference):  missed the tournament
1999:  19-11 (11-5):  lost in the first round
2000:  19-12 (10-6):  lost in the first round
2001:  12-19 (8-8):  missed the tournament

And that was it.  U of L got Rick Pitino, and by 2005 they were back in the Final Four.  The problem wasn't U of L -- the problem was that the game had passed Crum by.  He couldn't adjust to the shot clock and the three-point line, and his recruiting couldn't keep pace with what guys like Pitino and Coach K could do.

That's where Calipari is now.  Trying to argue that Calipari was never a good coach, or that he can't coach any more, is silly.  He's still capable of outsmarting his fellow coaches (as we saw this year at Auburn and at Tennessee), and it wouldn't surprise me if over the next five years, he has one more run to the Elite Eight in him.  But the game has passed him by.  At this stage in his career, his real interest is in taking guys like Justin Edwards and Rob Dillingham and helping them to pursue their dreams.  Ten years ago, you could do that and also go deep into the NCAA Tournament.  But that's no longer possible.  The last serious one-and-done team was Duke's team with Zion Williamson in 2019.  They lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight, and the title game was between the bruisers from Virginia and Texas Tech.  That 2019 season -- one of the best in history -- was also one of the most important, because it ended the one and done era once and for all.  Ever since 2019, most coaches have understand that physical 22-year-olds will beat even the most talented 18-year-olds.

Take Rick Barnes at Tennessee.  He had perhaps the greatest one-and-done of all -- Kevin Durant, who played for him at Texas.  In the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2007, Durant was amazing -- but Texas lost 87 to 68 to Southern California.  Barnes doesn't recruit guys like that anymore.  He recruits tough guys who will stay for four years.  And last night, his guys beat Saint Peter's (remember them?) 83 to 49.  Barnes has his own problems, and you can never tell how UT will do, but that model is clearly better than what Calipari is doing.  And when you take that model and you put it in the hands of someone who can really coach -- like Dan Hurley -- UK has no hope to compete.

So where do we go from here?  I don't think Calipari will change -- this is a moral issue for him.  When I moved to DC in the early 1990's, John Thompson was still coaching at Georgetown.  But at that stage of his life, with his legendary status beyond any question, he was more interested in helping young men than in winning basketball games.  His last good team was in 1996, when Allen Iverson took the Hoyas to the Elite Eight.  But while Thompson had one great player, his opponent in the Elite Eight -- UMass -- had a team of tough, disciplined, experienced players -- and they ran Georgetown out of the gym.  Back then, Thompson was trying to make a point, and the UMass coach -- John Calipari -- was trying to win.  Now the shoe's on the other foot, and I expect Cal to be just as stubborn as Thompson was.

In short, Kentucky is stuck.  It's unlikely that the program will simply collapse and miss the tournament -- Cal is too good for that.  On the other hand, I don't see any way back to the Final Four if Cal continues to play freshman-dominated lineups, and I don't see Cal taking advice from Mitch Barnhart (or anyone) on how to put his team together.

My guess is that there will be some meetings and discussions in Lexington, but not much will change between now and November.  In effect, Cal and the UK Athletic Department are going to call the bluff of all the UK fans calling for change -- they're going to bet that when November rolls around, everyone will show up as if nothing was different.  And that's when things are going to get really ugly.  Because this fan base is not bluffing.  They're too smart and too experienced to believe in this story again.  Unless the Cats start off the season 20-0, you aren't going to see folks getting on that bandwagon next year.  And let's be honest, we already know what will happen.  They'll lose to Duke in that season-opening event they play every year.  They'll lose to next year's version of Evansville or UNC-Wilmington.  And they'll bounce around between 25 and 15 on Ken Pom.  That's the best case scenario.  And when they lose at Alabama, and Florida, and Georgia (or maybe Vandy) -- you won't be able to convince people that the team is built for March.  We've seen it too many times.  And somewhere out there is another Saint Peter's, or Oakland, who will be thrilled to learn that it has drawn Kentucky in next year's tournament.

It's sad that it has to be this way.  We all can wish that Cal had retired after the COVID year.  But he believes that he has a moral responsibility to help these young men, and he will keep trying to do things his way for as long as he can.  I saw it happen with Crum at Louisville, and Thompson at Georgetown, and Gary Williams at Maryland, and Nolan Richardson at Arkansas.  All those teams had fans who loved their programs as much as we love ours.  And now it's come for Kentucky, and there's no good way out.


  1. Here was Cal's quote after the game last night, when asked about whether he should take a different approach to constructing the roster:

    "I've done this with young teams my whole career, and it's going to be hard for me to change that, because we've helped so many young people and their families that I don't see myself just saying, 'OK, we're not going to recruit freshman.'"

    So Kentucky has been warned -- he's not going to change. It's a moral issue for him. If you buy the ticket, you take the ride.

  2. Apparently Cal has five more years remaining on his contract. And here you see the difference in how the folks who run Kentucky and the folks who live in Kentucky think about time. To the folks who run Kentucky, the obvious move is to let Cal have his last five years and go out with dignity. That feels classy, and (of course) it also saves money. To the folks who live in Kentucky, five more years of this (or even worse) will feel like 100 years.

  3. I love Cal, and my first choice would be for him to resign to do a great college-basketball show for someone along the lines of what Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal do on TNT for pro basketball. My second choice would be for him to be bought out and then to be hired to run and coach the Washington Wizards.

  4. Here are UK's last four years in terms of KenPom's "luck":

    2021: 354
    2022: 279
    2023: 239
    2024: 285

    Now Cal and his defenders have talked about how Kentucky really did have a good team, but the team didn't execute last night. But these "luck" figures show that Cal's teams usually don't execute in close games. When he first came to Kentucky, this problem was not so severe. Here are his early "luck" scores:

    2010: 43
    2011: 285
    2012: 86
    2013: 194

    But back then, other teams hadn't yet bulked up and otherwise figured out how to take advantage of younger teams. Going forward, I think we have to assume that UK's younger teams will consistently be outsmarted by older and more experienced opponents.

  5. Here's another interesting fact about Cal. Look at his record at Memphis. For each year, we are giving his final ranking on Ken Pom:

    2001: 43
    2002: 33
    2003: 29
    2004: 33
    2005: 53

    In 2005, Pitino took U of L to the Final Four, and it was pretty obvious that Cal was not keeping pace. But then this happened:

    2006: 6
    2007: 9
    2008: 2
    2009: 4

    Cal had made his big breakthrough. He could go with really young stars in key positions -- guys like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans -- and dominate more veteran teams. You didn't have to wait for guys to "develop" -- you could promise to make them stars from Day One. This breakthrough is what got Cal his National Championship and his ticket to the Hall of Fame. Also, it allowed him to feel that he wasn't just making money -- he was helping kids to a better life. But the world adjusted. In football terms, he's like a guy trying to run the wishbone against modern defenses.

  6. You can see when the world figured it out. Here are UK's final Ken Pom rankings from 2015 to 2019:

    2015: 1
    2016: 6
    2017: 4
    2018: 17
    2019: 8

    And here's what happened after UVA won it all in 2019:

    2020: 29
    2021: 49
    2022: 6
    2023: 27
    2024: 23

    Again, the situation isn't hopeless. It's possible for Cal to build another top 10 team, or make another run. But going forward, UK is not a top 10 program -- they are, at best, a top 30 program. And for Kentucky fans, that is a big (and painful) difference.

  7. At the half, Western Kentucky led Marquette 43 to 36. And if Western had been playing UK, the Hilltoppers would be heading to the next round, because the Cats don't really like to "shake things up" between halves. But Shaka Smart, the Marquette coach, decided to do some things differently in the second half. So the former Warriors roared back to defeat Western 87 to 69 and officially eliminate the Commonwealth from the 2024 NCAA Tournament. Still, it was great to see the Tops back in the Tournament.

  8. Calipari is having a great weekend. Bruce Pearl and Auburn went out to Yale. Now Scott Drew and Baylor are losing to Clemson. UK's potential alternatives are not looking great.

  9. Matt Jones now doing an update on Twitter Space. Here's what he has to say:

    1. Jones thinks we will know something on Tuesday.
    2. Calipari is out of town and is coming back to Lexington tomorrow
    3. Whatever happens will take place tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow night
    4. Jones says he honestly "does not know" what will happen
    5. The people who know are keeping it very tight-lipped
    6. Option One: They make a change. He sees this option as "slightly more likely," but felt more confident about this than he did two days ago. Biggest problem: there isn't an obvious candidate.
    7. Option Two: Cal comes back, but with "a massive swing" in how the program works. Barnhart would demand changes, and Cal would no longer be free to do whatever he wants. Jones doesn't know if Cal would agree to that. So one option is that Barnhart offer Cal a chance to come back with changes, and Cal refuses.

  10. Personally, I think Jones is significantly underestimating the ability of old pros like Barnhart and Calipari to reach agreements and work together.

  11. Jones claims the UK Administration was surprised at how angry the donors were toward Cal.

  12. Jones claims that if Cal leaves, they would start by calling Jay Wright. There's no chance Wright would take this job.

  13. Jones says they would also reach out to Scott Drew, who is currently losing 63 to 57 to Clemson with 3:20 left.

  14. Jones thinks that Barnhart would insist that Cal make changes to the program in terms of assistants, roster, etc. That strikes me as pretty unrealistic -- why would Barnhart want to micromanage Cal?

  15. Here's my guess:

    1. Barnhart will have talked to the donors, and he'll know whether he has the option of bringing Cal back.
    2. Barnhart will also have made up his mind as to whether he believes Cal is still capable of winning at a high level at UK.
    3. Cal will have made up his mind as to whether he wants to stay, and what the conditions for staying would be.
    4. So when they meet, Barnhart and Cal will each know what outcome they prefer.
    5. If they both want to end the relationship, it will end.
    6. If they both want to keep the relationship, they'll figure out what to tell the rest of us.
    7. The only way they would negotiate would be if Cal were willing to make concessions to Barnhart in order to keep the job at UK. I don't think that's very likely. And I don't even know what those concessions would be. Barnhart doesn't know enough about basketball to tell Cal how to coach better. My guess is that what Barnhart would be most interested in hearing is not anything about hiring new assistants or changing the roster. My guess is that for Barnhart, the big issue would be simply whether Cal is really committed to winning at UK, as opposed to helping his guys get into the pros.

  16. Meanwhile, Baylor got to within 66-64, but just missed two FT's that would have tied the game. Now Clemson is going to the line, up two, with 29 seconds left.

  17. I'm going to predict that Cal stays at least one more year. I don't see Barnhart wanting to do a search for a new basketball coach under these circumstances. They made a change at the women's basketball team a few years ago, and that turned into a disaster. Barnhart is trying to hire a women's coach right now. I cannot believe that he wants to be hiring a women's basketball coach and replacing Cal at the same time.

  18. Clemson beats Baylor 72 to 64, so Scott Drew is out.

  19. Also, I don't think Cal wants to go out this way. I think he will want to come back and prove us all wrong.